27 December 2009

Christianity, child murder and witch hunts in Africa

I was perusing John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity today, where I saw this disturbing post about witch hunts in Kenya. Readers mentioned an article published in October over at The Huffington Post that discussed the rise in evangelical Christianity and its connection to the rise in accusations of witchcraft. It's a disturbing look at what happens with the spread of religion in developing nations. While Christianity is growing the world over, it is on the decline in developed nations such as the United States and Britain. It is growing the most rapidly in developing nations like Nigeria and Kenya, and the consequences of converting ignorant, superstitious people to a new religion can be dire.

I can already hear the chorus of Christians claiming that the Christian pastors who murder (or sanction the murder of) children aren't "true" Christians. This is the classic "No True Scotsman" fallacy. Of course they are Christians. That does not mean that all Christians believe in or condone such things (of course not!), nor does it mean that Christianity inevitably leads to such morbid outcomes.

The problem with religion is that it is based on a set of ridiculous ideas that are regarded as immutable truths and shielded from criticism precisely because they are religious beliefs. This is problematic enough in a developed nation like here in the U.S., where we at least have well-organized laws prohibiting cruelty to others and guaranteeing freedom of speech. But in developing nations, people don't have access to the education that we do, nor have they remotely reached a comparable point in their sociocultural evolution. They are ignorant people ruled by superstition and fear, and many of them lack the ability to discern objective reality from religiously motivated delusions.

The responsibility here in no small part falls upon the evangelical Christians spreading their religion. In the fervor to save the souls of the lost, missionaries often overlook the sociocultural norms that will affect the way in which people integrate religion into their lives. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as converting them to Christianity and watching them transform into a prosperous democratic nation. Most poignantly though, these missionaries are not teaching these African peasants the importance of reason, evidence and critical thinking. They're not teaching them about the scientific method, or how to objectively critique claims about the nature of reality. Instead, they're merely replacing one set of dogmatic, irrational beliefs with another set of dogmatic, irrational beliefs. It should be no surprise, then, what kind of atrocities these uneducated, superstitious people are willing to commit in the name of their newfound faith.

26 December 2009

The Stenger/Craig debate

Well, ol' William Lane Craig is at it again, this time debating famed nonbelieving physicist Victor Stenger, author of God: The Failed Hypothesis, among others.

Craig basically trotted out the exact same arguments he's been trotting out for years, in every single debate he's ever had. He follows the predictable pattern of arguing for god's existence with the cosmological argument, the argument from design, the moral argument, and person experience.

It was nice to see Craig debate a physicist, for one reason: Stenger demolished Craig's abuse of the Big Bang as a support for his theological conclusions, as well as his false dichotomy of the universe either having a beginning or being infinite – an assertion no one who has so much as perused Hawking's A Brief History of Time would make. It's about freaking time. Overall, I thought Stenger presented far better arguments, and as usual was much more pleasant to listen to. I can't stand Craig's smarmy, near-shouting demeanor.

However, as usual with the guy on my side, I wasn't totally happy with Stenger. It's just the nature of these things. I'd like to see someone point out to Craig the inductive fallacies that all his arguments are rooted in – namely, using contingent, measurable, observed phenomena to make inferences about speculative, unobservable, immeasurable supernatural phenomena. I would have liked to see Stenger spend more time talking about morality, too, as Craig's "objective morality" argument is one of monumental face-palming stupidity.

Predictably, Craig's fans thought he had a clear victory, and Stenger's fans thought Craig got his clock cleaned. Personally, I thought this was a decisive win for Stenger, but of course I've never been impressed with Craig in the first place. The problem with debates is that everyone's always looking for a "winner", as if good debate skills somehow vindicates an argument. But even if one side clearly loses, it doesn't mean they were wrong; it just means they were unprepared. I enjoy watching debates, but I recognize that at best, they should stimulate critical thinking – not change minds.

Full playlist of the debate is here.

22 December 2009

Shifting the goalpost

When researching Intelligent Design and evolutionary biology for my recent post on the subject, I came across a tactic that I'm increasingly discovering is ubiquitous in the theological community. When your argument is thoroughly demolished, don't admit it or try to learn from your mistake; instead, just claim that your original argument wasn't really that important, and it's some other argument that is really the issue. This is called shifting the goalpost, and it's pretty damning evidence that when their beliefs are held up to critical scrutiny, theists simply don't know what they're talking about.

Francis Collins shifting the goalpost

Morality is one of those big issues that theists like to hang their hats on. It's the old, "without God, everything is permissible" nonsense. Francis Collins is, in some ways, a really nice asset for the scientific community because he's both a devout Christian and a guy who knows a lot about evolutionary biology and goes through great lengths to debunk the pseudosciences of intelligent design and creationism. If the Discovery Institute's infamous Wedge Strategy is any indication of the evils that ignorant people associate with evolution, it may be more palatable for some believers to learn about evolution from a fellow believer rather than someone like Richard Dawkins, who is similarly adept at explaining evolution but conversely delights in ripping religion to shreds.

But one thing I worry about with Christian scientists like Collins and, say, evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller (author of "Finding Darwin's God"), is the fact that while they clearly accept evolution because the evidence is both overwhelming and experimentally verifiable, their religion might place them more firmly in the company of creationists when it comes to other scientific theories. Case in point: evolutionary models for morality. Collins bases a good deal of his theology, as described in his book The Language of God, on the notion that morality is derived from the divine. So what is he to make of the fledgling field of research that examines morality from cognitive and evolutionary models?

One of my favorite authors, the primatologist Frans De Waal, in an essay for the Templeton Foundation, writes:

To explain human behavior as a “mere” product of evolution, however, is often seen as insulting and a threat to morality, as if such a view would absolve us from the obligation to lead virtuous lives. The geneticist Francis Collins sees the “moral law” as proof that God exists. Conversely, I have heard people echo Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, exclaiming that “If there is no God,
I am free to rape my neighbor!”
Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed to form a livable society, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked rules of right and wrong before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need or complain about an unfair share? Human morality must be quite a bit older than religion and civilization. It may, in fact, be older than humanity itself. Other primates live in highly structured cooperative groups in which rules and inhibitions apply and mutual aid is a
daily occurrence.  

Does Francis Collins explicitly reject the idea of an evolutionary account of moral behavior? No; he's a scientist, and he perhaps realizes the folly of steadfastly rejecting such an idea out of his own credulity. Rather, he shifts the goalposts, saying in his own essay:

A deeper question raised by this debate is the fundamental nature of good and evil. Does
morality actually have any foundation? To be consistent, a committed atheist, who argues that evolution can fully account for all aspects of human nature, must also argue that the human urge toward altruism, including its most radical and self-sacrificial forms, is a purely evolutionary artifact. This forces the conclusion that the concepts of good and evil have no real foundation, and that we have been hoodwinked by evolution into thinking that morality provides meaningful
standards of judgment.
This is an invalid argument for a host of reasons, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether morality can in fact be explained by evolution. This is an argument about meaning and purpose, not an argument about the validity of scientific concepts. This is a classic theistic dodge: evolutionary models of morality are rapidly advancing, and once confronted with the folly of their appeals to the supernatural, theists will just say that unless the facts are interpreted through a lens of a theological world view, we don't have any reason to take them seriously.

An analogy might be to imagine a staunch creationist who lived a hundred years ago. As the evidence for evolution poured in, he conceded that indeed, evolution does explain the complexity and diversity of life without need for special creation. But then he would try to preserve his argument by suggesting that unless God was somehow involved in the creative process, our existence can't have any meaning. Whether the new argument is fallacious or not (it is) is irrelevant; it has nothing to do with the original issue.

It happens all the time

Francis Collins is actually a relatively benign offender in this regard. Worse are ID and Creationism advocates, who are constantly pummeled with scientific evidence and simply reformulate their arguments so that they are immune from the evidence in question. When Collins himself, writing for MSNBC, debunked the stupid creationist claim that evolution cannot produce new information by pointing out that the bacteria that produces the enzyme nylonase could not have had that gene 100 years ago (since nylon is a synthetic material), IDiot William Dembski responded that it the question was whether the mutation in question qualified under his home-cooked, and widely rejected concept of "specified complexity".  He simply shifted the goalposts, because now the question is what his "specified complexity" really is, whether it is valid and testable (it's not) and what fits the definition. Since the whole concept is bogus, he can basically define "specified complexity" as whatever he wants and then claim that nylonase doesn't fit it; the reality though is that the bacteria did evolve a gene that served a specific function that the organism didn't have previously.

The more theists run out of good arguments, the more they will resort to these kinds of tactics to avoid conceding the issue and facing a great deal of humbling and possibly emotionally trying introspection. But don't be fooled – shifting the goalpost is nothing but a shallow tactic theists use to avoid a dent in their pride.

20 December 2009

The importance of critical thinking

I've been an atheist for a while now. After rejecting the Christian faith in my teens, I spent many years as a "theistic agnostic" – I believed that some kind of higher power probably existed, to explain things like morality, the complexity of life and the origin of the universe. As I studied the sciences and became more learned in philosophy, I realized that those things did not require supernatural explanations, and I became an atheist. But even though I'm still an atheist, I don't just read atheist or secular literature. Far from it. I regularly watch debates between theists and atheists, read articles by theists, and read books on the subject. This year, I've read The Language of God by Francis Collins, and The Reason for God by Tim Keller. I don't like to spend a lot of time reading that stuff; I prefer to read up on science literature rather than polemics for either side. I'd much rather read something like The Greatest Show on Earth than The God Delusion.

I do this because I have always recognized the immeasurable value of critical thinking. When I first read The Case For Christianity by C.S. Lewis, I could have done what most Christians do and closed the book satisfied that I could recite those arguments to myself and sleep a little better at night. But I wanted to know that my faith was built on stone, not sand. I asked myself, if I were to completely deconstruct this argument, how would I do it? I had the courage to separate myself from the powerful emotional attachment I had to my faith – it was, after all, central to my social life, my family life, and my personal identity – and demand answers to the most difficult questions. At the time, I firmly believed my faith would withstand critical scrutiny; it was only after a great deal of intensive study that I reluctantly accepted that this was not the case, and my beliefs were indeed riddled with a litany of logical flaws.

But to this day, I don't sit on my laurels. I'm pretty well versed in the philosophical argumentation for and against belief. I'm no scientist, but I do try to have at least a respectable understanding of fields of science that are interesting and relevant to me. But if all I did was read atheistic polemics, what would I really gain? Even now, it's important that I can fully understand my beliefs. I don't want to be complacent. I want to be challenged. Maybe that's partly why I write these blogs, and why I post links to atheistic videos on my Facebook page, where I have lots of Christian friends. I didn't become an atheist by being persuaded by emotionally charged rhetoric; I got here through rigorous and difficult self-examination. Anyone can study material they know will reinforce their own biases, but it takes a great deal of courage to continuously examine one's own beliefs with a measured, dispassionate sense of skepticism.

19 December 2009

Chicken teeth: Why we know evolution by natural selection is true, and Intelligent Design is hooey

Preface: I am not an evolutionary biologist. There are innumerable people who have doctoral degrees and such in this field of study, all of whom are better qualified to expound on the details of this subject than I. For those looking for evolutionary biology from the perspective of an actual biologist, there are innumerable resources out there, not the least of which is the new tome by famed Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth. Of course, I haven't seen any ID advocates who are evolutionary biologists either, so at the very least I'm as qualified as many of them to discuss the topic. Whenever I'm studying a science, I strive to understand its core concepts in their simplest terms. With this humble little essay, I hope to be able to give you, the reader, that same understanding.

Intelligent design is still at it

I would have thought that the Dover trial would have dealt a serious blow to Intelligent Design (ID), but it seems to have done so only in our ability to keep it out of public schools. The ID zealots are still at it in full force. Even CNN, perhaps in a sorry attempt to seem unbiased, stuck an essay by ID champion Stephen Meyer in its feature on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's landmark The Origin of Species. But ID should not be entertained as if it is a valid alternative to evolution, because it is not. It's pseudoscientific nonsense that belongs in the same annals of shame as Phrenology, Alchemy, and Astrology. We know that evolution is true, and that ID is a farce. But how?

ID advocates assert that the difference in the theories is one of inference. "Darwinists", as they call them, look at the genetic similarities between species and infer common ancestry; ID advocates, however, infer a common designer. The question then becomes twofold: what is the evidence of the efficacy of natural selection to produce functional complexity, and what is the evidence of design? Unfortunately for IDer's, the difference is not one of inference. Because if evolution is true, it will – like any scientific theory – make testable predictions that, if wrong, would falsify the theory. ID is pseudoscience precisely because of its inability to make falsifiable predictions.

To understand this, it's helpful to understand just what kind of predictions evolution makes, and how these predictions could, if shown to be wrong, falsify the theory. But first, a definition: many people (well... creationists, mostly) assert that evolution is "just a theory", as if "theory" means "guess" or "hypothesis" and should not be equated with "fact". However, this confuses the colloquial meaning of "theory" with the scientific meaning of the word. In science, a theory is a body of knowledge that explains observed phenomena. It must make falsifiable predictions. Facts are merely the observed components of a theory. For example, we know that bonobos and humans share over 98% of their DNA. That's a fact. The question is why do humans and bonobos have nearly identical DNA, and a proper theory not only must explain this phenomenon, but make testable predictions about future discoveries. 

Chicken teeth

It may come as a surprise that chickens have latent genes for producing teeth. Horses have latent genes for producing toes. Humans have latent genes for producing fully functional tails. Whales have latent genes for producing legs. Why? If we were designed to function exactly as we do, why do we have non-functional genes? Well, it turns out that in these animals' evolutionary ancestors, these genes were in fact functional. There's no reason for a whale to have a pelvic bone and a gene for producing legs, but they do because their evolutionary ancestors had functional pelvic bones and legs. But the IDer could always try to get around this argument by suggesting that God – err, excuse me, the "designer" – could have designed animals however it wanted. There could be imperfection and waste in nature, but that wouldn't refute design. It would just mean the design is inefficient. Or perhaps animals were designed to be able to adapt to different environments. After all, IDers and young-earth-creationists (YECs) don't deny the ability of natural selection to produce changes within a species – they call it "micro-evolution". But the key difference is not merely that evolution predicts wasteful genes, but it predicts specific types of wasteful genes according to an ordered hierarchy. We call this hierarchy the Phylogenetic Tree of Life.

The tree of life

The phylogenetic tree of life looks something like this:

Notice the branching of species. An example of very early branching would be vertebrates and invertebrates; thus we see these two kinds of animals – say, jellyfish and humans – much farther apart on the hierarchy of modern animals than jellyfish and starfish, or humans and apes. Accordingly, we should expect that jellyfish share much more of their DNA with other invertebrates, and humans share much more of their DNA with other vertebrates. And, of course, this is precisely what we observe. Evolution could have been (and could be) falsified if we find that animals on the opposite ends of the hierarchy shared more of the same latent DNA. Jellyfish, for example, do not have latent genes for producing pelvic bones. Humans do not have latent genes for producing stingers. All of the genes that these animals have, both functional and latent, are predicted to follow this precise ordered hierarchy.

Of course, the differences don't have to be that extreme. Humans do not have latent genes for producing reptilian scales, because the ancestors of modern reptiles and modern humans branched off long, long ago. Modern birds, however, do have latent genes for producing scales, and when we map their genes we find that birds share much of their DNA with ancient reptiles while we humans do not. If the IDer wants to get around this conundrum by suggesting that the designer could have designed an animal with certain degrees of inefficiency, the burden is on them to explain why we see genetic homogeneity among the specific branches of the phylogenetic tree that we do, and more importantly how this will affect what kinds of speciation we will observe in the future. Evolution predicts that if we find a new species of lizard and map its genes, it will share more of its latent DNA with extinct reptiles and modern birds than it will share with extinct mammals and modern primates – right along the ordered hierarchy of the phylogenetic tree. What such predictions does ID make? You guessed it – none.

Cecal valves and nylonase: evolution in action

It's often asserted by IDers that geological time scales – the thousands and millions of years between species – is a cop-out that prevents evolution from being observed. However, that is simply not the case. One of the best examples is the amazing evolution of podarcis sicula, a species of greenback lizards.

Contrary to popular myth, evolution does not predict or require one species to magically transform into another. Dogs will not give birth to horses, apes will not give birth to humans, etc. This is the fallacy of "micro-evolution" versus "macro-evolution" – two bogus terms invented by creationists who simply do not understand how evolution works. Evolution of new species occurs when a population becomes split, and the two populations are geographically isolated. The varying environmental pressures cause different genes to be favored by natural selection, and over time small changes accumulate until the two populations are so genetically different that, if merged again into one population, they would not be able to reproduce. You now have two distinct species where there was once only one.

The evolution of podarcis sicula is a profound, real-world example of evolution in action. In 1971, researchers introduced five pairs of these greenback lizards to the island of Pod Mrcaru from their native island of Pod Kopiste. 36 years later, these species were observed to have undergone profound evolutionary changes in response to their new environment. Their bodies changed shape to adapt to different food, their social structure changed, and – most astonishingly – they developed cecal valves, which are novel organs that slow the passage of food by creating fermentation chambers in the gut, where microbes can break down the difficult to digest portion of plants. Cecal valves are present in less than 1% of all scaled reptiles, and are absent in the greenbacks' source population on Pod Kopiste. If such dramatic changes can occur in just a few decades, it defies the imagination to ponder what kind of changes can occur over geological time scales.

Just as amazing as the rapid evolution of greenback lizards is the discovery of nylon-eating bacteria, which possess an enzyme specifically for the breaking down of nylon called, appropriately, nylonase. This is significant because before 1935, nylon didn't even exist – it's a synthetic material. Where did this gene come from? Did the "designer" just stick it in there? Of course not. It arose through mutation of the bacteria's genetic code, producing new species of bacteria that could make use of the material. Notably, this is a real-world example of something that creationists and IDers say cannot happen: the evolution of new information and increasing complexity of the genome.

Falsify this

The theory of evolution is applied in numerous everyday circumstances. Our understanding of genetic variation, natural selection and the hierarchy of speciation is what allows us to develop drugs to fight multi-drug-resistant bacteria, preserve the environment, and put food on our tables. What kind of uses might ID have? ID advocates have produced no such pragmatic uses for their theory. Unlike evolution, ID does not predict how and why genetic variation and speciation will occur. It is evolution's ability to withstand such falsifiable predictions, and to produce real-world uses for us, that make it a valid scientific theory. ID is nothing but pseudoscientific nonsense, a vain attempt by creationists to justify their narrow-minded religious beliefs in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. I can't help but wonder what people find so threatening about evolution. It's truly remarkable, humbling, and awe-inspiring. And if science shatters our delusions of grandeur, has it really done us a disservice?

Practical applications of evolution:

Further reading:

18 December 2009

The religious right holds a "prayercast" to stop health care reform

There are simply not enough facepalms in the world to do justice to the lunacy of the religious right and the circus act it has become. Last night, republicans hosted a "prayercast" sponsored by James Dobson's group Focus on Family to protest the health care reform legislation currently working its way through the senate.

"Life and death hinges on the Senate health care bill. We face significant threats to the God-given right to human life through government funding of abortions, our health from rationing, our family finances from higher taxes, and our general freedoms posed by the government plan to take over health care. There have been a number of critical hours in American history. Our nation has struggled mightily and, under God, always risen to the challenges before us. Tonight, we will face this moral crisis by taking action and obeying the Biblical mandate to pray for our nation and its leaders."

There are two disturbing trends here, which mirror the ridiculous "Holiday Tree" fiasco I mentioned a few days ago. Firstly, that these people are simply wrong. Abortion funding has already been explicitly written out of the bill (not that I think it should have been); we already ration our health care through skyrocketing insurance premiums, rescission, and tens of millions of Americans with little or no coverage at all; the CBO has already projected that health care reform would save us money – the whole reason we need health care reform is because the current system is too inefficient and costly; and even if you count the "public option", a single-payer system has never even been on the table. Are these people true believers (and truly delusional), or are they purposefully selling misinformation? I suspect it's a little from column A, and a little from column B. When you repeat a lie enough, you start to believe it yourself.

The other disturbing trend, though, is that the religious right is absolutely convinced of the infallibility of their faith. They are certain that God is on their side, that the Devil wants the health care reform bill to pass, that democrats are, in the word of prayercast attendee Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, "in the spirit of Herod". These people really, honestly believe that their god not only exists and is deeply invested in human politics, but is firmly entrenched on the conservative side of the isle. For them, defeating health care reform is a divine calling. The irony is that this kind of religious grandstanding is exactly the kind of thing for which Jesus scorned the Pharisees. These people don't even seem to have a coherent grasp of their own theology, much less our need for health care reform. And it's precisely this kind of "us and them" mentality – the demonization of those with differing opinions and the unrepentant self-righteousness – that makes religious delusion so divisive and dangerous.

The Pseudoscience of the Supplement Industry

One would think that, being that we no longer live in the 1800s, we'd be past words like "tonic" and "elixir", products that claim to cure all that ails you. But thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the entire supplement industry is almost completely unregulated. And while supplement manufacturers are prohibited from making claims about diagnosing, preventing or treating any known diseases, there are innumerable other bogus claims they can make, and they can do so without the pesky burden of proving that their products actually do what they're supposed to, and do so safely.

$40 fruit juice and "muscle builders"

The berry concoction Mona Vie is, without question, one of the finest examples of a massive supplement scam. Yes, you are paying $40 a bottle for fruit juice. Unless, of course, you become a "distributor", in which case you might pay "only" $20 a bottle. (You'll have to forgive me if the pricing isn't exactly right – I'm going by memory from people who tried to sell me that crap.) The brilliance of Mona Vie is that the company itself makes virtually no claims whatsoever; rather, the consumers write testimonials, and they make the claims. Mona Vie has been claimed to relieve arthritis, reverse aging, put cancer into remission, strengthen joints and muscles, reduce inflammatory conditions, and any number of other things. Is there a shred of empirical evidence to back any of this up? Of course not. The company cleverly marketed the miraculous powers of the Acai Berry, because it is rich in antioxidants. Nevermind that many berries are rich in antioxidants, and megadoses of antioxidants has never been shown to do much of anything.

Perhaps the worst offender, though, is the bodybuilding supplement industry. Fitness magazines thrive on this industry, which litters every major fitness rag with mountains of ads claiming their concoctions will help you burn fat, build muscle, have more energy and mental focus, perform better in bed, or make your dick bigger. Some companies deliberately make their supplements sound like steroids, and some of them practically are steroids. Are they safe? Do they work? Guess what – they don't have to provide a shred of evidence for either before they sell you a $50 month's supply.

Think before you spend

Some companies claim to do their own research. But until claims are robustly verified by independent researchers who do not have a vested interest in selling a product and the results published in respected peer-reviewed scientific journals, one should be exceedingly wary of any supplement claims. I've seen multivitamins sold for $80 a bottle, anti-aging tonics, amphetamine-like stimulants and steroid-like testosterone boosters. At best, consumers who purchase such products are taking a gamble with both their pocketbook and their health. They product may work as advertised, but there are certainly no guarantees. The product may be harmless, but there are no guarantees.

Under the DSHEA, supplement companies are off the hook unless congress takes the explicit action of banning specific products. We saw this with the ban on both ephedrine and "pro-hormones" within the last decade. Unfortunately, for people who have suffered physically or, at best, wasted money on these products, it's too little too late. The supplement industry moves quickly, and banned products are quickly replaced by reformulated imitators and new wunderkinds. Although supplements can and often do have potent, drug-like effects on the human body, unlike the pharmaceutical industry the supplement industry can create any product, slap any label on, make any non-medical claim about it, and sell it at whatever premium the market will command. Buyer beware.

The best way to be healthy is still relatively simple: eat a diet primarily of whole grains, fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables and – optionally – lean meats. Exercise vigorously on a regular basis. Presto, you're healthy. No tonics, no elixirs, no pseudo-steroids, no exorbitantly overpriced vitamins. It's unfortunate that in our culture, people have an exaggerated sense of realistic expectations. If losing a pound a week is good, then losing five pounds a week is that much better, right? If small doses of a nutrient are healthy, then large doses must be that much healthier, right? This simply is not the case, and the old adage holds true: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Before you're sold on the miracle properties of any food or supplement, use a little common sense.

p.s. In the meantime, here's a trick for you. Try taking a Vitamin B supplement – just a simple oral B-complex will do. Notice that your urine will turn bright yellow. That, my dear friend, is the color of your money being pissed away, because once your body got the vitamin B it needed, it simply excreted the rest. Food for thought.

16 December 2009

The Religious Right's Paranoia Over Obama: Christmas Edition

I remember when Barack Obama was running for office, and there were emails circulating "warning" people that he was, among other things, a Muslim and the Antichrist. Despite the fact that Obama is a practicing Christian, the fact that he doesn't go trumpeting it around – coupled with the fact that, unlike George W. Bush, he doesn't claim that God speaks to him to guide his public policy – makes him a target for paranoid religiots (I claim copyright on that word!) on the political right. Actually, what really makes him a target for these nutcases is simply that he's not a right-wing nutcase. He's a democrat, and according to the Almighty Doctrine of Neocons, democrat = Satan.

The old "No True Scotsman" fallacy can be seen in full effect, with innumerable religiots claiming that he's not a "real" Christian. What they mean, of course, is that of all the thousands (millions?) of religions in the world, and of all the major branches of Christianity and its innumerable denominations, their particular brand of Christianity is the one that is 100% true and infallible, and people like Barack Obama who profess to be Christians but don't have the same theological views are not real Christians.

The Infamous "Holiday Tree"

The religious right is in an uproar (aren't they always?) again, this time over emails that have been circulating claiming two things: one, that the Obamas, in an appeal to make Christmas more inclusive, won't be calling the White House Christmas tree what it actually is, but a "holiday tree". Worse, rumor has had it that the Obamas – gasp – are not going to display the manger scene in the East Wing, a long-held tradition in the White House.

I'm not sure which deserves more facepalms – the fact that America is not a theocracy, and what Obama chooses to do in his house with his family does not in any way infringe on the rights of anyone to practice their own religious beliefs freely – or the fact that this is all simply not true.

What really grinds my gears about all this is how easy it is to crack the truth. It took me literally about ten seconds to type "Obama nativity" into Google and find numerous news articles (not paranoid, unsourced emails or blogs) demonstrating this stuff as complete crap.

From Factcheck.org:

We can quickly dismiss the false claim about a "Holiday tree." No less an authority than the National Christmas Tree Association states that this year’s tree was chosen in August and is a Fraser fir grown by Eric and Gloria Sundback of Shepherdstown, W.Va. The news was duly reported by the Associated Press, which noted that other trees grown by the Sundbacks also had been displayed at the White House during the terms of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The Christmas tree association states that "the Sundbacks will present the official White House Christmas Tree to First Lady Michelle Obama for the 2009 Christmas season."

And according to the New York Times, the nativity scene is, in fact, already on display.

Bigger issues

The larger concern is not whether those claims were true, but the Christian right's paranoid reaction to them. We liberals agree that America is a free country, and that each of us has the right to freely practice our own religion in our own homes and communities, so long as said religious beliefs do not infringe on the rights of others. But the religious right is not satisfied with that. No. They want Christian religious displays in places paid for by American tax dollars. They complain that kids aren't allowed to pray in school, when all that happened is that teachers, paid for by tax dollars, were not allowed to lead children in prayer. They want Christianity to have a special place front and center in American culture, all those millions of Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, Jews, Wiccans, Satanists, Mormons, Scientologists, and whatever else be damned.

We do not live in a Christian theocracy. We live in a secular nation filled with a diverse variety of religious faiths, including 30+ million Americans who profess no faith at all. In no whatsoever does it infringe upon anyone else's religious freedoms whether the President wants to have a nativity scene, a "holiday tree", a menorah, an inverted cross or a Slayer concert in his house. It is, however, worth asking why any religious tradition is being endorsed in a place paid for by American tax dollars – the East Wing in particular.

The xenophobia, bigotry and ignorance of the religious right know no bounds, but a fearful and reactionary mind is the hallmark of one that is indoctrinated by irrational dogma rather than reason. The Christian right seeks to demonize those who do not subscribe to their narrow world view; they scorn freethinkers and rail against others who threaten their dominion over cultural mindshare. What are they afraid of? Let the Obamas celebrate their religious beliefs however the like in the privacy of their own home. You can do the same. That's the freedom we are guaranteed by our constitution. Why make it any more complicated than that?

Further reading:

Christopher Hitchens: "It's Not the White Christmas House"

15 December 2009

On the Death of Oral Roberts

Oral Roberts' death today wasn't, by any stretch, a time of mourning for me. This was a man who preached the dangerous nonsense of miracle healing, Zionism, and creationism, and whose spiritual delusions duped people out of millions of dollars. For me, it was a chance to marvel at just how tall a mountain we have yet to climb to eradicate, or at least render inert, this kind of dangerous, foolish nonsense. While a wave of best-selling books, websites and grassroots campaigns have helped erode religion's foothold on millions of people, there are many challenges still ahead.

Oral Roberts reached millions and millions of people through his ministry – people who bought into not only the delusion of religion itself, but to even more bizarre and absurd behaviors and beliefs. This is not something to be celebrated. Oral Roberts' life was a triumph of ignorance and delusion, and the many followers he has left behind reminds us only that despite the immense progress we have made, atheists and agnostics are still a minority. The challenge of ridding the world of religion goes beyond argumentation; it crosses over into psychological and sociocultural domains. The greatest gift skeptics can give believers is the desire to rationally critique their own beliefs. Religion need not be replaced by another, equally dogmatic cult. Rather, religion should be identified and discarded as the foolishness it is.


My previous blog, The Apostasy, focused exclusively on religion – namely, philosophical and scientific argumentation on the fallacies of religious belief. That's still a topic of great interest to me, and I don't intend to abandon it. However, I realized that it was just too narrow a topic for me to release substantive posts on a regular basis. I believe in quality over quantity, but I'm realistic enough to know that without a steady stream of content, my blog will never reach the kind of audience I hope for.

So with this blog, my aim is to broaden my horizons – to discuss science and pseudoscience, religion, philosophy, current events, media, recipes for cake, and whatever else tickles my fancy. By discussing a wider variety of topics that are of interest to me, I can update the blog much more frequently and, with any luck, get an audience. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. There's much to come.